A Private History of Awe is a coming-of-age memoir,
love story, and spiritual testament. I never thought I would make such
a book, wary as I am of memoirs and spirit-language. For years I shied
away from writing about religious experience, in part because of the
hostility that many literary readers show toward all references to spirituality,
in part because these matters have always seemed to me better left private.
Yet the questions I’ve kept returning to in my adult life are
essentially religious ones, and I found myself unwilling to abandon
this terrain to the televangelists and fundamentalists.
Beginning with childhood intuitions of spirit in nature, the narrative
recounts an education in ultimate things. My ethics were formed in conversation
with the Midwestern landscape, the Bible, rural Methodist churches,
science, literature, and family. Those influences prepared me to hear
the wisdom in such inspired human beings as Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi,
Einstein, Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Thich
Nhat Hanh, and the Buddha.
During the writing of this book, I spent many hours caring for my mother,
as she suffered physical and mental decline, and caring for my first
grandchild, as she launched into life with the marvelous energy and
beauty natural to all healthy children. Together, the dwindling elder
and burgeoning youngster made their way into the book, adding their
twin stories of painful departure and exuberant entrance to the narrative
of my own formative years.
I’d like to believe that A Private History of Awe belongs
to the tradition of American wisdom literature running from Emerson
and Thoreau to Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard. I set out to describe
my own brushes with the ground of being, the holy source of all that
rises and passes, and to record my search for a language and way of
life adequate to those experiences. The resulting book may irk true-believers
at one extreme and militant secularists at the other. But I hope that
readers who dwell between those extremes will find, as the Quakers say,
that A Private History of Awe speaks to their condition.